Issue #112, July/August 2000
Homeowners, and Tenants Too
Mobile Homeowners face unique, yet familiar, challenges
By Philip Rosenbloom
|Coachella Valley's 200 mobile home parks provide the only available housing for many agricultural workers in Riverside County, California. But living in the parks, which often lack electrical, water, and sewage systems, can be a hazardous proposition. Faulty wiring in one park caused two fatal accidents in 1998. The county responded by filing lawsuits against a number of park owners who were operating without permits and against their tenants. These lawsuits are not likely to improve the residents' conditions. In fact, if their parks are forced to close, residents will have to move to more remote areas, where they will face even worse conditions. Many residents, unable to move their homes, will likely face homelessness.
Mobile home parks originally became popular among laborers flocking to urban areas for war-related employment during World War II, because they were not affected by wartime restrictions on certain types of construction. After the war, mobile home producers, now known as the "manufactured housing industry," expanded into larger, factory-built, site-specific housing. Today, the industry's most productive region is the south, with Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida leading production. Though some of these homes are shipped out of state, a large percentage of mobile homeowners live in these states as well.
There are roughly 19 million Americans of various means living in manufactured housing today, but mobile homeowners are still subject to social stigmas which developed shortly after World War II. Trailer parks, now largely home to people with incomes below $20,000, are often perceived as homes for the destitute and disreputable. In recent years, the manufactured housing industry and the federal government have made an effort to stem this stigma by encouraging use of the terms "manufactured homes," and "manufactured home communities." This campaign seems to have had little effect on the social standing of mobile home parks, and according to Janet Dermotty of Vermont's Mobile Home Park Project, "Most of the people who live in the parks [still] say 'my trailer'."
Assembly line construction keeps the cost of all types of manufactured housing down, but single-wide "mobile" homes remain by far the most affordable category. They're not as cheap as they first appear, however. Mobile homeowners generally have monthly rental fees for a homesite on top of their mortgages. Mortgage companies often discriminate against mobile homeowners by demanding inflated interest rates, and retailers frequently qualify people for mobile homeownership without fully explaining the range of expenses, such as water, sewage, and electrical costs, as well as any fees the park owner may charge for certain appliances or pets. The cost of buying the home itself, combined with the cost of renting the site, most often makes even mobile homes less than affordable without a subsidy. And unlike stick-built homes, mobile homes don't appreciate in value, producing no equity for their owners.
Why would people buy mobile homes under these conditions? "It's still cheaper than everywhere else," says Dermotty.
Lack of Options
Once a mobile home is purchased, residents are often subject to the whim of the landlord when it comes to rent increases and park regulations. Park owners often supplement their standard rent increase with other charges throughout the year, or enforce restrictive regulations that help them to cut costs. One park owner has forbidden residents to remain outdoors after dark, so he won't have to install proper security lighting. Other regulations, such as forbidding pizza delivery, seem more arbitrary, but can still create substantial inconveniences for park residents. "People don't mind regulations if they're fair and reasonable," says Deborah Chapman, chair of the National Foundation of Manufactured Home Owners. But too often, landlords implement regulations to cover up for the lack of security or maintenance.
Residents have very little opportunity to contest these costs and regulations, because they frequently find themselves left unprotected by state landlord/tenant legislation that only covers tenants who rent housing itself, not those who own a home and rent land. Residents paying only lot rent usually fall under much weaker legislation.
Moving out is not always an option, either. To move, traditional renters simply have to move their possessions, but a mobile home resident has to move an entire house. "We have to get over the fallacy that mobile homes are mobile," says Dermotty. "They're not."
Even if they can move, finding a place to go is tricky. While corporate owners make profits off their large share of the nation's mobile home parks, the number of affordable parks is actually decreasing. Usually located on the outskirts of towns and cities, mobile home parks tend to be on land that is attractive to developers of "big-box" discount commercial centers. More and more park owners are selling to these developers, leaving displaced tenants with fewer places to move their homes. What new parks there are tend to be pricey and focused on retirement and recreation. Some owners will only allow new trailers, which can cost up to $50,000. Since mobile homes can't build equity, current low-income homeowners are unlikely to be able to "trade-up" to these new models, further decreasing their range of options. Also, despite the implementation of the Fair Housing Act, some park owners continue to discriminate against children, limiting options for families.
Home and Park Safety
Affordability and location are not the only issues facing mobile home owners. The unsafe conditions in the Coachella Valley can be found across the country. According to Jan Breidenbach, of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, mobile home parks are, at times, "nothing more than moveable slums." Though HUD Code supposedly delineates the standards for the manufacturing process, including the installation of plumbing, heating and electrical systems, many mobile home parks still have problems maintaining safe conditions. Faulty wiring and wood stoves, most often found in older mobile homes, often contribute to fires. Furthermore, some chemicals used in the production of mobile homes can be hazardous to asthmatics. While suitable warning labels are required, they are often missing.
But most safety hazards in mobile home parks are not due to problems with the houses themselves, but rather to faulty systems in the park's infrastructure or faulty installation of the home at the park. According to Chapman, 51 percent of mobile homes are improperly installed. Most often, the tie-down process, which connects the home to its foundation, is carried out incorrectly, leaving the home unstable. It's often unclear whether installation is the responsibility of the manufacturer, the retailer, or the park owner, so nobody is forced to shoulder the blame.
Safety problems do not end with installation. Mobile home parks effectively put landlords in the position of local public works director, in charge of roads, sewers, water pipes, and electrical systems, seriously magnifying the effect of an owner who neglects repairs. Park owners, like many landlords, are also known to cut corners when they do make repairs. Dermotty recalls a landlord who installed an old oil drum in place of a septic tank.
One of the most well-known safety issues particular to mobile homes is their trouble resisting severe weather situations, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and flooding. A recent study by FEMA's Building Performance Assessment Team indicates that no mobile home can withstand even a medium-grade tornado. While Ted Wimpey, of the Vermont Tenant's Association, suspects that one might expect similar results with a large percentage of the stick-built housing stock, there are certainly factors that would make mobile homes especially susceptible. The frequent problems with tie-down make mobile homes more likely to be carried away by high winds or flooding. Also, most mobile homes have very little storage space, so many homeowners construct make-shift storage sheds outside. Not only can these sheds not resist any strong storm, debris created by their destruction can damage the house itself. Finally, mobile home parks tend to be located on the cheapest portion of the park owner's land, often an area prone to flooding, or generally unprotected.
When these disasters occur, mobile home owners are often left without a financial safety net. While homeowner's insurance premiums are often as high for mobile homes as they are for stick built housing, mobile homes aren't worth as much, and the payout for them is significantly less.
Sealing Up the Cracks
Vermont, unlike most areas of the country, does provide some protections for mobile homeowners, showing that being halfway between tenant and homeowner doesn't mean low-income residents have to fall through the cracks. Vermont park owners wishing to raise the rent more than once annually must present substantial justification and obtain the approval of at least 50 percent of the park residents, after which an outside mediator is brought in to negotiate the amount. State regulations on park habitability outline necessary maintenance procedures that both park owners and tenants must perform. Park owners making major repairs to park infrastructure need a permit, preventing landlords from forfeiting safety in favor of profits.
Park owners in Vermont are also required to give residents a thirty day notification before selling the park. During this period, the residents have the opportunity to either form a cooperative and purchase the land, or enlist the help of a nonprofit to purchase the land for them. In either case the landlord is not allowed to force the tenants to compete with any counter-offers. In order to encourage landlords to sell to tenants rather than developers, the state has offered tax breaks to any landlord who sells a park to a nonprofit. If a landlord intends to close a park, the tenants must be given at least one year's notice.
Vermont's legislation is a good place for other states to start. Also needed are mobile home park safety codes that address proper installation of homes, and adequate information on fair mortgage and insurance rates for mobile home buyers so they don't fall prey to discriminatory practices.
Those wanting to take the first step should contact the National Foundation of Manufactured Home Owners, which has been working on these issues for over 30 years. The Foundation, a national, nonprofit volunteer organization, and a member of HUD's national partners in homeownership, fights for protective legislation for manufactured homeowners, provides information to Federal agencies regarding manufactured home standards, legislation, and technical issues, facilitates communication among various tenant and state associations, and assists residents attempting to form associations.
They're Not Going Away
For now, mobile homes continue to be an unpopular option for new low-income housing developments. In the case of Coachella Valley, Riverside county resolved the lawsuits by agreeing to pay $16 million dollars to build new stick-built housing for farmworkers and low-income residents, rather than improve conditions in the existing parks.
But as long as mobile homes themselves continue to be cheaper to produce than stick-built houses, they are likely to retain a place in the affordable housing spectrum. And as long as parks continue to house significant numbers of low-income families, the conditions of mobile home parks and the rights of mobile homeowners need to be on the radar screen of tenant activists and affordable housing advocates. Many of the fights are the same.
Phil Rosenbloom is a student at Oberlin College and a Shelterforce summer intern.
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